Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C Major (complete)
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 15, 2018
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA
SMF Chamber Orchestra on period instruments
conducted by Carsten Schmidt
flute: Immanuel Davis, Anita Rieder oboe: Alek Fester, Margaret Owens
clarinet: Nina Stern, Ed Matthew bassoon: Keith Collins, Stephanie Corwin
horn: Todd Williams, Ian Zook trumpet: Kris Kwapis, Bruno Lourensetto timpani: I-Jen Fang
violin: Aisslinn Nosky (leader), Gesa Kordes, Martin Davids, Plamena Nikitassova, Jacob Ashworth, Valerie Gordon, Fiona Hughes
viola: Kyle Miller, Kathleen Overfield-Zook, Jason Fisher
cello: Anna Steinhoff, James Wilson violone: Heather Miller Lardin, Erik Higgins
video by Stewart Searle
About the Music
Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) Symphony No. 1 marks his entry into a field long dominated by Joseph Haydn. We don’t think of Beethoven as a timid personality, but he clearly waited to enter the symphonic realm until he felt sufficiently mature. All of his earlier publications were chamber works including solo piano sonatas, piano trios, string duos and the like. With the Opus 18 string quartets he finally stepped onto Haydn’s turf. Those quartets were quickly followed by the Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, composed in the late 1790s. It was the first of nine magisterial symphonies Beethoven would ultimately create.
With his first symphony, Beethoven also chose to exert himself with a bold opening gesture: a dissonant chord that points to a key other than the tonic (i.e., home) key. To begin a large-scale public work with so forceful a dissonance was probably unprecedented in 1800. Beethoven’s irreverence of starting with an ending device—a dominant-seventh chord to full cadence—shows wit worthy of Haydn. Moreover, he cadences in the “wrong” key of F major. This deflection further muddies the waters, inspires a prolonged excursion into dominant harmony, and makes the eventual arrival at C major all the more satisfying. A big part of hearing Beethoven’s comic effect lies in appreciating how conventional classical-era music was. Cadences, for instance, are the punctuation marks 18th-century musical grammar, closing off ideas with either full or partial stops. Thus, as noted by Beethoven’s contemporary Johann Matheson, “When cadences are used at the beginning of a piece, they become something special, since they normally along at the end.” In sum, Beethoven is playing with stylistic conventions.
Beethoven actively sought a fresh start with this symphony, and the spirit of innovation resonates across later passages. Overall, the work maintains many norms of the four-movement symphony: a fast Allegro with slow introduction, slow lyrical movement, a dance, and a vivacious finale. But upon closer inspection, many characteristics are updated for the dawning 19th century. For instance, whereas most slow movements of the day used a reduced scoring, Beethoven’s second movement calls upon the full orchestra. This Andante con moto also moves at a quicker pace than typical slow movements. The third movement Minuet goes so quickly as to qualify as a Scherzo, which became the composer’s preferred type for symphonic third movements. In fact, with its jabbing accents and syncopations, it sounds less like a graceful Minuet than the second movement. One of the true innovations is Beethoven’s virtuosic wind writing. Where a previous composer might have used the string-woodwind contrast in call-and-response fashion, Beethoven combines them more tightly in the presentation of his themes. Taken all together, this first essay in the symphonic genre certainly presaged monumental things to come from Beethoven’s pen.
© Jason Stell, 2018
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